Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Bravo, Sanal! A Profile in Courage and Conviction

It has been a while since I had written about Sanal Edamaraku, the president of the Indian Rationalist Association, a small but growing Indian organization that strives to debunk instances of pseudoscience, superstition and mysticism. For those who are unaware of Sanal's many accomplishments and his relentless efforts to unmask religious preceptors, or Gurus, and self-styled godmen, who claim to perform mystical 'miracles', I recommend the excellent website of this organization, the Rationalist International, of which Sanal is the founding president. In 2010, Sanal was in the news when he took a Tantrik guru upon his words, challenging the guru to kill him using only his 'mystical' powers. Needless to say, the effort didn't work well for the Guru.

As you all may know, Sanal has recently come under heavy and concerted fire from several Catholic Organizations in India, after he exposed a supposed 'miracle' at a Catholic Church in Mumbai. The Catholic Church of Our Lady of Velan Kanni in Vile Parle, Mumbai, claimed that a statue of Jesus Christ was miraculously dripping water. Following a visit to the Church, Sanal wrote:
"Water from Jesus’s feet was being diluted and distributed among followers. They were telling the devotees that the water had medicinal remedies and would heal all their ailments. Even photographs with water dripping off the statue’s feet were being circulated..."
Later on, Sanal explained with photographic evidence, how the water dripping from the Jesus statue was a result of a leak, via capillary action of underground sewage water near the cross.

The Catholic Church wasn't amused. Members of various Catholic organizations started clamoring for an apology from Sanal, which he rightly refused. So in the true Christian spirit of forgiveness, the Catholic organizations took the additional step of lodging an official complaint (known as the First Information Report, FIR) with Mumbai Police, under Indian Penal Code Sec 295A, 'Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs'. It is important to note that this offence is cognizable (which means, the Police can arrest him any time without warrant) and non-bailable (once arrested, he cannot get bail until he is put on trial). In rapid succession, multiple complaints were lodged against Sanal at different police stations in Mumbai.

What is not unusual (given the propensity for vote bank politics in India) but highly alarming, nevertheless, is that these Catholic organizations seem to have managed to secure considerable support from Indian government agencies to their cause. Authorities in Mumbai have taken recourse to harassment and intimidation in order to insist that Sanal surrender voluntarily. His petition for an anticipatory bail was turned down by a lower Court in Mumbai, and subsequently, by the Mumbai High Court, which means that once arrested, he will be imprisoned for an indeterminate period until completion of trial, which could easily take several years. Police have already visited his home in Delhi for serving the warrant of his arrest, but couldn't find him home.

Since the threat of summary imprisonment without due process for an indefinite period was looming large, Sanal has now left India for an undisclosed location in Europe, even as his lawyers are preparing to challenge the Indian Penal Code Sec 295A, an anachronistic relic from the 1860s, before the Constitutional bench of the Supreme Court of India, because it infringes upon the freedom of speech and lends itself to easy, blatant misuse, as being perpetrated by these Catholic organisations to silence Sanal, a tireless campaigner against religious superstition. And all these for what? Sanal demonstrating a practical, physical solution for a so-called unexplained phenomenon.

India is a constitutionally secular country. However, the definition of 'secularism' has been devised by Indian Courts in a manner that is very different from the European definition or the American principle of Separation of Church and State. While the text in the Indian Constitution is reasonably clear, there is a lot of room for interpretation, and over the years, the Supreme Court rulings have tended to rationalize religious practices, taking into account the manner in which Indian nationalism has been intricately intertwined with religion (See, for example, here for an erudite treatise on this; another interesting work, using case history to illustrate certain points of law, is here). This has not only resulted in a narrower and more restrictive definition of secularism, but also created loopholes for continued support of religion and religious groups by the executive. This is why outdated laws like IPC Sec 295A still thrive.

The Constitution of India explicitly protects the freedom of speech: Article 19(a) guarantees the fundamental right to free speech and expression, and Clause 13(2) forbids the state to promulgate laws which abolish or abridge such rights. The worrisome question in the larger context is why, then, the branches of the Indian government seem hell-bent on punishing this man for speaking out against blind superstition and despicable con games by religious leaders.

Another curious observation is the unnatural and sustained fury with which the Catholic organizations have reacted, given that Catholic Christianity has a much reduced footprint compared to the other two major religions. Blogger and author Ophelia Benson offers a reason:
(Catholic Church) is backed by a powerful worldwide apparatus, driven by great ambitions to conquer India and make up for its losses in the western world... The revengeful local Catholic leaders, on the other side, have the tacit support of another heavy weight: the powerful Catholic Church. The Pope is keeping mum, ignoring thousands of contemporaries from various parts of the world who are calling upon the Vatican via an Online Petition of the Rationalist Association (UK) to take a stand in this case... It is obvious that the Catholic Church is trying to pull the strings to silence its most vocal and courageous opponent in India. If there is one person who could cross their ambitious plans, it is Sanal Edamaruku. So there is much at stake, for both sides.
QFT, right there. In the meantime, Sanal's fight for rationality and good sense goes on. I request all of you to express solidarity with Sanal by signing the Online Petition of the Rationalist Association, UK, and do also donate some money if you can, to Sanal's defence fund; it is a worthy cause, not just for us, but for posterity's sake as well.

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